UCU Picket line at the University of Manchester UCU Picket line at the University of Manchester. Photo UMUCU on Twitter

As we vote for a new General Secretary, Counterfire members ask how can we address the crisis higher and further education?

Post-16 education in the UK is in deep crisis. Universities are facing the prospect of major cuts in jobs and programmes while Further Education has for years been starved of proper investment and attention. This is the context in which the 120,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU) are currently voting in elections for both General Secretary and National Executive Committee positions. 

The situation in universities is dire, as 14 years after the trebling of tuition fees and the introduction of a so-called ‘competitive market’ in Higher Education, the sector feels like an economic basket-case and the victim of a bizarre neoliberal experiment. Students have been turned into paying customers accruing massive amounts of debt, staff into service providers and educational institutions into brands delivering ‘employability skills’ and presiding over lucrative property portfolios.

The problem is that the government’s plans were never actually designed to work for staff and students but instead to make universities, like many other institutions, accountable to market forces. It knew that a majority of tuition fees would never be paid back but decided to proceed anyway because the costs were would be borne by future generations. 

But tuition fees, fixed at £9250 for domestic students (apart from those in Scotland who continue to receive free education), have failed to keep up with inflation. The Financial Times estimates that universities currently lose around £2500 a year on domestic students in English universities and that by the end of the decade, this will be more like £5000.

The solution for many universities has been to hold down pay resulting in a real-terms pay cut of 25% since 2009 and to recruit vast numbers of overseas students whose fees are not set by government and therefore can rise year on year. The problem now is that demand from overseas students is dramatically slowing down and that, for those institutions who are overwhelmingly dependent on this income, they are feeling particularly exposed.

In this context, the FT warns that ‘It is not impossible that at least one university could face bankruptcy this year.’ ITV News paints an even more drastic picture. Reporting in November 2023, it claimed that one in four HE institutions were making big losses and that ‘multiple universities could be forced to close if no action is taken’.

Going bust 

Actually, the idea that a university could go bust was always written into Tory legislation as a kind of disciplinary measure to be used against ‘failing’ institutions. So the government’s 2016 white paper on Higher Education insists that ‘we need to confront the possibility of some institutions choosing – or needing – to exit the market. This is a crucial part of a healthy, competitive and well-functioning market…The Government should not prevent exit as a matter of policy.’ No matter the huge impact on local communities, jobs and students’ own lives, market ‘exit’ is apparently evidence that the sector is performing well.

This isn’t a crisis confined to English universities. In Scotland, it’s estimated that 36% of providers expected to fall into deficit by 2024/25 because of caps on domestic students while the Scottish government recently announced that it was cutting at least 1200 free university places because of the need for savings.

So there’s no question of a government bail-out – either from this government or from a Starmer-led Labour administration tied to the same economic plans. Instead, the sector’s regulator, the Office for Students, has made it clear what it considers to be the only available options other than ‘market exit’: course closures, institutional mergers where costs are centralised, more online and distance learning and more commercial income. ‘Rationalisation’ and marketisation are to be further entrenched.

That’s why we have seen a rash of announcements in recent months. For example,

• Coventry announced in December that it will cut spending by nearly £100m in the next two years.

• Lincoln has refused to rule out redundancies even though ‘our finances are sound’.

• Sheffield Hallam has introduced a VS scheme as part of a plan to make substantial savings which will also include making all academic staff reapply for their jobs.

• Aberdeen introduced a recruitment freeze and VS scheme with a ballot now ongoing to save the modern languages department.

• Staffordshire has announced up to 100 redundancies even though it’s not facing a financial crisis and indeed has recently invested some £3.5m in its London campus in order to launch ‘The Digital Loft’ and ‘The Data Junction’.

There are going to be many more examples like this.

The money’s there 

And yet we’re not talking about a sector that is starved of cash. The OfS’ own figures show that there was a surplus of nearly £2.4 billion in the last full year of accounts (2021-22) and it’s projecting a 25% increase in revenue from 21-22 to 25-26. Instead, what we have is a two-tier system where some universities are sitting on giant stockpiles of cash and assets while others, primarily serving working-class communities, are far more exposed to the vagaries of the market. 

So there remains enormous amounts of money sloshing through the system – certainly enough to pay for the bloated salaries of university bosses where the average remuneration is now £325,000, or to fund the huge investment in student accommodation such as the £1.7 billion ID Manchester scheme supported by Manchester University and the private company Bruntwood SciTech. But this isn’t money that is reaching staff in their pockets nor addressing systemic injustices like the appalling levels of casualisation throughout HE. 

Meanwhile, Further Education colleges have also seen their budgets slashed with especially big cuts in funding after 2010 and the introduction of a new ‘insolvency regime’ in 2019. The sector has long been marked by consolidation, mergers and cuts. For example, up to five out of the six FE colleges in Northern Ireland are now facing job losses because of a £9m cut in funding for the sector; In Scotland, FE teachers in the EIS called for emergency funding in order to avoid compulsory redundancies and course closures. Spending on adult educationhas fallen by two-thirds since 2004.

These are all political attacks on the post-16 sector and we need a sharply political response.

What kind of union do we need?

UCU members have not taken all this lying down. Workers in both HE and FE have taken unprecedented amounts of industrial action since 2018 including strikes and marking boycotts to defend pensions, resist casualisation and increased workloads and, above all, to fight for fair pay.  And we have had victories: 69 days of strike action eventually saw the restoration of benefits to staff in pre-1992 universities while dozens of FE Colleges have had pay rises after taking action. 

Many branches were galvanised as a result of the action with strike committees, staff/student assemblies, anti-casualisation groups, teach-ins and teach-outs springing up on many campuses. UCU is no longer seen as a timid or marginal union.

But we have also thrown away opportunities to address the systemic inequalities and injustices throughout post-16 education and many members are now feeling demoralised and nervous about the future, especially in the context of punitive and intransigent managements. 

From a position where over 100 university branches and some 30 FE branches were taking coordinated action, the energy behind the pay campaign has dissolved – not because of a lack of willingness to fight for better working conditions but because of a combination of weariness and a lack of confidence that the national union had developed a strategy to win. All too often, we hesitated where we should have escalated or else, as with the HE marking boycott last summer, threw away the momentum when management were increasingly nervous. When faced with management threats of pay deductions, we should have stood together as a national union instead of fragmenting and leaving a small number of branches isolated. It was hardly surprising that the resulting re-ballot was lost in the autumn given the ‘divisions and disillusionment’ that even THES journalists picked up on.

So, once again, we need to rebuild our confidence and rediscover the anger that fuelled the USS disputes or the FE pay strikes. This will not come about as a result of the identity of the new general secretary but, as always, from what we do at branch level and how to address the many concerns that our members have in order to build the strongest and most inclusive branches. 

This means that we shouldn’t just be campaigning on pay and workloads – as crucial as they are – but also on mobilising members, for example, in solidarity with the people of Gaza and confronting the climate crisis on a collective basis. Rebuilding our union means that we have to start to offer solutions to all the issues that affect our members. Right now, booking a coach to the next national march for Palestine on 3 February means that members would be able to get together to discuss not just Palestine but everything that affects them as trade unionists; mobilising for the workplace day of action in support of Gaza would involve collaborating with other campus workers and student groups to make us all stronger.

This is political trade unionism: a belief, as one UCU striker put it in the recent strikes, that ‘strength comes from the rank and file, not from the top, and it helps in the fight against an atomised and exhausting workplace’.

What kind of leadership do we want?

Building strong branches and rank and file organisation is key but national leadership can still make a difference as we saw in the most recent industrial action. By the very nature of their positions – not based in an actual university or college and not being exposed to the daily pressures of the post-16 environment – trade union leaders are likely to reflect a more conservative and cautious outlook that a precarious lecturer or disgruntled librarian.

Counterfire’s view on who to vote for in the elections for NEC and General Secretary are therefore based not on the idea that these people will magically transform the union on our behalf but primarily on the extent to which candidates will be accountable to the membership,support branch activists and respect the democratic decisions of the union’s elected bodies. 

We would call on our readers to support candidates who have a record in building branches and in organising solidarity with other workers and movements. We want to see a leadership that is sensitive both to the unevenness of the membership and to the fact that members gain confidence from being in struggle. We want a leadership that is visible and militant but not one that puts PR strategies and snappy videos before the need to communicate openly and honestly with the membership We want a leadership that understands that the attacks on HE and FE are political and has a political strategy in response to these attacks. Above all, we want a leadership that reflects and articulates the anger that our members feel about the deterioration of our working conditions and the marketisation of our post-16 education system.

We regret that the demand for free education is absent from the manifestoes of the three main candidates for General Secretary. This is a significant issue, not least because the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has already publicly stated that free higher education is not possible because of the ‘economic situation’. It will be vital for the next GS to stand up to a likely Labour government that has made it clear that they will maintain existing spending priorities. Indeed, none of the manifestoes contain a detailed account of the financial crisis in which we find ourselves and of the everyday impacts of marketisation and financialisation on our sectors.

However, Counterfire believes that, of all the candidates for General Secretary, Saira Weiner,the UCU Left candidate, is closest to the vision we have outlined above. We have been critical of UCU Left in the past – particularly when it came to their position on disaggregated ballots which we felt weakened the union and exaggerated the difficulties in winning a national ballot at the time – but her manifesto highlights a rank-and-file orientation combined with clear support for liberation issues and the central issue of building solidarity with Palestine.

The current GS, Jo Grady, is running again but she was a key actor in the confusion and demobilisation that eventually undermined the recent pay strikes. For all her welcome support for Palestine, her record for many members is far from the glowing one outlined in her manifesto and her promise to make the union ‘more accessible and democratic’ clashes with her use of informal e-ballots and direct appeals to members over the heads of elected bodies of the union. There is definitely a need to strengthen union democracy but that will only be done with increased rank and file activity on the lines we have suggested and not through a further commission.

Whoever you vote for in the coming elections, the lessons are clear: the interests of UCU members will best be served by focusing on building strong and outward-looking branches, throwing ourselves into the solidarity work most urgently required to stop the genocide in Gaza, and presenting a vision of a post-16 education system that isn’t distorted by market ideology and managerial diktat.

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